The afternoon of our recent tour took us to the Monsanto Learning Center located in Monmouth. To be honest I was looking forward to hearing about the Monsanto products and was happy to lose myself a bit in the amazing concepts being used to develop different types of plants. Although I am very concerned about chemicals used on what I eat and how different processes might impact my family’s health, I am all for using science to find new ways to effectively grow food.
Recently I have learned about vertical farming (I love high rises!) and tomato farms with no soil at all. There are so many new ways to do things. Just because they are not the old-fashioned type farm doesn’t make the food less desirable. Here in the Midwest we grow mainly corn and soybeans so maybe some of the new fangled farming without soil isn’t right around the corner, but there are lots of new things I had no idea about.
Monsanto is an agricultural company that focuses on producing higher yields with fewer resources. They sell seeds, develop different traits with biotechnology and create crop protection chemicals. The location we visited is focused on corn and soybeans as are the local farms. However they do also work on modifying vegetables as well. They develop hybrids using genomics to alter traits on the different plants. They are not significantly changing plants so much as finding ways to make them more efficient and reduce stress on them. When we were in the classroom we could see a collection of corn and how it has changed over the last many thousands of years. In general it has not changed much—maybe a little more robust but overall not a lot. It was pointed out that the goal is NOT to make huge changes, but they change proteins to manipulate specific traits. They cannot “grow a giraffe with a hippo head!”
Stress on crops is reduced by helping them to survive pests, endure varying weather and provide reduced competition with weeds that compete for space and nutrients. This leads to increased durability, higher yields and enables more success in difficult conditions. As an example, in the early 1900’s to grow a bushel of soybeans it required 3,960 square feet. By the late 1900’s the area was reduced to 1,740 square feet. In 2012 the same bushel can be grown on just 1,040 square feet. It is impressive in numbers, but we were also able to see the difference that makes in space. At Monsanto they have fields created in each of these sizes and it is remarkable to see the space reduced to less than a third of the initial area.
The ability to genetically modify plants impacts food production all over the world. In the developing world it helps farmers to grow food in areas where it was not feasible before because of limited resources. This not only produces more food, but lessens their dependence on outside providers. For producers of fresh vegetables it allows for the ability to transport their goods if they have fewer pests and tougher skin. For the consumers it can increase desirability such as enhancing flavors, increasing nutrients or even the size such as smaller peppers or melons. There is more variety if you can get products from different growing areas and the more produce available, the lower the price too. Of course I am a hater of the “new tomatoes” that are very pretty, but in my opinion very tasteless. I was relieved to hear from Monsanto’s Director of Vegetable Industry Affairs that now they are working to get the taste back now that they survive shipment much better. Until then I have to stick with the farmers market while my own tomatoes ripen on the vine!
While at the learning center we were able to learn about some of the key products that Monsanto is known for producing. Round-Up weed control is used by farmers to reduce the number of weeds in their fields. This is the same Round-Up you see advertised on TV and at your local garden center. I used it at home for a very pesky weed and you would of thought I was using Agent Orange I was so careful—both in my application (with a paint brush!) and in my attire. This provided great laughs for those at Monsanto who assured me it is actually pretty gentle. It capitalizes on the difference between mammals and plants and selectively targets specific enzymes and creates an amino acid that we do not have. It has nowhere to go in our system so it passes through. That was a relief! Next was learning about “Round-Up Ready” corn and beans. Monsanto has modified corn and beans to be resistant to their own chemical. The field can be sprayed to kill competing weeds with no harm done to the crop itself. It seems genius to me!
At the end we learned a bit more about BT corn, a type of corn we saw growing at the Moore’s farm. This corn has the protein from a bacteria “Bacillus thuringiensis” actually inside the plant. The rootworm that is known for devastating corn crops eats it and cannot process it. It stops eating and then dies, eliminating the problem. BT is found in soil throughout the world and is naturally occurring. It is an allowed pesticide in organic farming, but in that setting it is sprayed on the plants and soil. By integrating the BT into the crop it eliminates the need for chemical spraying and the resources that requires.
Also at the Moore’s farm we saw the “refuge” corn growing amidst the BT corn. To try to avoid a BT resistant worm from developing the federal government requires that farmers using BT corn must plant at least 20% non-BT corn that the worms can feast on. The refuge corn at the Moore’s was eaten through—we could see the damage on the leaves and stalk and eventually one of the accompanying farmers got out his knife and cut the plant open so we could see the actual worms.
As with other products we learned about, we were told that the BT protein does not affect us as we have different systems than the rootworm. However this is the product that gets the most crazy press coverage. I first saw an article on GMO food in Vogue magazine right before our tour. It cites a 2011 study by Aziz Aris in Canada that found the BT “toxin” in the blood of pregnant women and their fetuses. At first this makes you gasp and panic and say oh, no! I looked it up on the internet and I saw dozens of articles published all over the world and the assorted comments that went with them. Not one ever answered the very short question. “So?” Every article stated the discovery but neither the articles or actual research has revealed any side affects from the protein, which is toxic to the worms—not the people.
As we ran out of time our tour finished up with acknowledgements for the need for farmers to work smart instead of just working hard. The average farmer today feeds 155 people per year compared to just 26 in 1960. We were reminded that farming is competitive and mediocre farmers (not doing what you can to preserve the soil and resources) are likely not to survive and just as quick there will be someone else to farm the land. The parting comment was that “Mother Nature Rules” and that Monsanto is constantly looking for alternatives to current problems.
River Forest, IL